Monday June 21, 2010

PITTSFIELD

It's been two years since an experimental laptop program officially ended at select Berkshire schools, but the technology is still being integrated into many classrooms.

The Berkshire Wireless Initiative launched as a $5.3 million three-year pilot program, providing North Adams and Pittsfield students with their own Apple iBook G4 laptops. In all, 2,700 middle school students in five schools were equipped with the devices. The participating schools were Silvio O. Conte Middle School in North Adams, and St. Mark School, St. Joseph School, Herberg Middle School and Reid Middle School in Pittsfield.

With the wireless initiative officially over, the schools have been left to their own devices. They're deciding whether to give students their own laptops, how to continue to integrate the technology into the classrooms and how to maintain the aging machines, which can be costly.

"We've made it through the fifth year with the same hardware," said Matt Collins, a seventh-grade teacher and technology coordinator at St. Mark School.

St. Mark is the only school that still runs what is called a "one to one" program, in which each middle school student is given a laptop. However, only the seventh-graders are allowed to take them home during the school year.

This summer, since the school doesn't have an official technology department, a "technology crew" of students, teachers and parents will donate their time to take inventory of the laptops, physically clearn them and conduct checkups on their operating systems. 

Collins said the laptops have complemented traditional education at the school.

The technology "hasn't replaced using a textbook but has enhanced it. As schools and educators, we have to remember that technology and associated skills are things students will need in their daily and business lives in the future," he said.

One St. Mark student had praise for laptop learning.

"It makes things better and you get to [make projects] on your own," said seventh-grader Alex Mitchell.

In Pittsfield Public Schools, laptops are no longer given to each student, but teachers can sign out a laptop cart to be used for lessons. Herberg and Reid middle schools both have 12 carts each containing 25 laptops, according to Randy McLeod, the district's technical services coordinator.

He said the school district has also purchased laptop carts for the elementary schools, while upgrades are planned this fall for the computer labs in the two public high schools.

Keeping up these programs and machines, however, are costly.

"We're trying to do a six-year renewal cycle. It may seem lengthy, but if we did it annually, it would cost approximately $500,000 to $700,000 per year," said McLeod. In addition, the district only has three technicians to tend to 1,500 laptops and the wireless network.

Matt Mervis was the technology coordinator when the wireless initiative was implemented at North Adams Public Schools. Today he is a consultant to North Adams and other districts.

"Overall we got some pretty significant results with [wireless initiative]. There was a lot of enthusiasm surrounding the project, and the impact that it had was positive," Mervis said. In North Adams, students' test scores improved overall during the laptop program.

This year, Conte Middle School was closed and the middle school grades were sent either to the high school or elementary school buildings, making it difficult to administer the one to one program.

However, since the end of wireless initiative, North Adams Public Schools have incorporated other kinds of laptops into the curriculum. In 2008, 50 ultra-light 7-inch ASUS Eee PCs were given to Drury High School students. The district is also looking at using 10-inch netbooks and tablet PCs.

"Overall. I think there's still a commitment in schools to the widespread use of wireless technology to support student achievement," Mervis said.

About BWLI ...

To learn more about the BWLI project and to read the final independent evaluation (March 2009) by the Boston College's Technology and Assessment Study Collaborative, visit: www.bc.edu/research/intasc/researchprojects/bwli/bwli.shtml.

BWLI information can also be found online at: www.mcla.edu/BWLI.

To reach Jenn Smith:
jsmith@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6239.